To Homework, or not to Homework...That is the Question

Even after reading thought provoking blog posts by my friends dayle timmons and Silvia Tolisano about homework, I've been pondering whether to share what I have to say about the subject. A few years ago, I probably wouldn't have shared because I know people have such strong opinions about homework. I think I would have argued with my own self several years ago...but personal experience has taught me a lesson.

Most of the years I taught in the classroom, I had this written somewhere on or inside my students' homework folder: Homework is a way of reinforcing what we learn and do in school each day. I truly believed it. I felt like it was a necessary task. I assigned what I deemed appropriate amounts in a variety of subjects and provided rewards...and lost playtime for unfinished work (I'm ashamed to say). Just as I do now as an educator, I only did what I thought was best at the time...

Being a mommy changed my mind about homework.

I have a 19 year old daughter, a 13 year old daughter and a daughter and son that are 5. My oldest daughter sailed through elementary school. Every day, from kindergarten on, she brought home homework that never took her more than 5 or 10 minutes. Frequently, she finished it on the bus on the way home. I never had to study for a single test with her. The most I ever heard about homework was when I had to purchase supplies for a project. I never really thought about it at the time, but now I look back and think...did that really help her? Was that necessary time spent or could she have been doing something better with her time?

My second daughter had a much tougher time in elementary school. I had to sit with her every homework night from kindergarten on to encourage her and prompt her to do her best. By the time she hit fourth grade, it became what I honestly think of as traumatic. She didn't really understand the concepts the first time they were taught, so the evening's practice was totally worthless. I tried my best to review the work with her again, but she was so frustrated, tired and unsure that we inevitably ended up writing a note or talking to the teacher to get extra help. Fortunately, she had great teachers who gave her as much as she needed during the school day to get her through the toughest times. Teachers helped her. Homework didn't.

Now, in middle school, she needs help almost every night to complete pretty meaningless practice work. She frequently says to me, "I'm just not smart," when I tell her to try her best. Many times, I am unable to follow the directions on the assignment myself! Twice this year, she was assigned "seek and find" word puzzles with more than thirty words to find. Not only does it take her a good hour to do something like that, she does not learn the words in the puzzle as she "seeks and finds." She managed to make good grades this year, but I promise you it wasn't due to homework assignments. How do I know this? Because if it weren't for my help and input her homework would have never gotten completed. It was really more my thinking than hers.

But, I digress, because this really isn't about what is being assigned. This issue to me is: should there be homework at all? I would have to say: NO

The students working above grade level are speeding through their class assignment, the below level students are struggling through and either practicing their work incorrectly or are unable to do the work. What is that teaching either of them? I tried differientiating homework once, and the kids that I felt needed practice the most never did it anyway!

I think that students extending their learning at home needs to come willingly. If they are inspired they will go online and look for more information about what you taught them in class. They'll build their own blog or wiki. They mashup what you have taught them into something new and much more meanful. I can agree with the fact that we may need to provide some tools for home use, such as books at a child's reading level and/or practice activities for a parent to use if they request it. We may even need to spend some time teaching our parents, to help them understand how their children are learning now and what is expected in class.

I've had this conversation with some of my colleagues and we must agree to disagree. I respect their opinion. I have to because I used to have the same opinion. Everytime I ask a teacher why they feel we HAVE to have homework they all have very good reasons. But when I ask them if all of their students do it they all say, "no." And so...are the kids that truly suit those reasons for giving homework really benefitting from the practice work? Does it really "help" kids?

I don't think so. But that's just me. Please feel free to share your thoughts.


suzanne31381 said...

Melanie, the homework debate rages everywhere. I wonder if it always will. How many minutes per subject is too much? If it's 'meaningful' work, does that make it okay? If there is time in class to 'go over it reflectively and give feedback' the next day then it's worthwhile, and so on. Yes, there are many theories about homework but I haven't seen much benefit in real life for most kids during 15 years of teaching.

As you said, for the struggling kids homework just adds to the pain. My son was much like your second daughter. We had the homework trauma on many a night.

Luckily for me now, the argument is becoming moot in my school and that lets me off the hook. So few kids do it that most of us don't even think about assigning homework anymore. Not many of our kids have home support (time, space, parent present, etc.) to do it and assigning it turns into a no-win situation. This is partially a socio-economic issue.

But even in neighborhoods where the students have ample help and opportunity to extend their learning at home at the kitchen table we all smell the dirty little secret. Parents hate it more than the children! "Sorry, no family time tonight, kids, after (insert extracurricular activities here) and a quick dinner we've got to do your schoolwork."

I am also reluctant to admit this out loud, but I'm glad I don't have to assign homework and I'm glad my son is grown so I don't have to fight that fight anymore.

Rhonda said...


I have completed my 31st year of teaching, and raised three homework-hating boys. I agree with Suzanne about the "meaningful" work. I hate to admit I have assigned homework that returns with notes from parents, "Please excuse ____ from her/his homework assignment. I did not understand it."

We assign homework in an attempt to justify what we didn't get time to do in class, or because the students need more practice. I believe there is credibility at times. For example, children need to practice certain math strategies at home because we simply don't have time to do enough of it at school. However, it is critical that students understand what they are doing in order to make it meaningful for them. Another example is that I often ask my students to pre-read Science or Social Studies text pieces. I know many don't read them because I do not attach an assignment to it. Those that do read will lead the class discussion simply because they have been exposed to the material. I always remind students the reading of the text can be counted in their daily reading log, and some choose to use the opportunity to log it in.

I have watched the pendulum swing several times during my career in education. It will continue to swing. Moderation with purpose seems to be the current trend. I am good with that.

Anonymous said...

I homework, but I don't even look at it when it comes back. If they did it, they might benefit. If they didn't, oh well. Generally the ones who do it don't need it, and the ones who need it either don't do it or it is clear from looking at it that the "helper" did most of the work. Lately homework has been a reading log, (read 20 minutes a night) and the cummulative abc list and sight word list for the year to date. I gave them flashcards for the letters and words, and send an additional set home from time to time.

Lori said...

I don't assign meaningless waste of time worksheets, but expect all my kiddo's to read a bit or be read to every night. They are trained to read good fit books that they can read with a high degree of accuracy and are interested in. The benefits are huge!

Could not agree more. There have been numerous studies that show that homework does not increase student performance at all. At the school I teach at, many parents request homework because they link homework amount to rigorous academics that will get their child into Harvard. We just reviewed our homework policy and are changing it a little bit. We are working on going toward assigning more project based activities (personally I think these can be more of a headache for families because they usually can't be done totally independently at the elementary level). I have seen not assigning homework do more good than assigning. In my class, I never assign homework. But the activities that we do in class are engaging enough that I often have students request that I write a website address down so that they continue working on it at home. I have parents call, email, twitter, or post a comment on facebook requesting the software or website used in class. This isn't because I am assigning homework, it is because the students are engaged in learning and truly enjoying what they are learning in class. They want to continue that learning at home. We need to foster this kind of learning, because this kind of learning will truly increase and enrich learning. It will also foster life long learners.

Homework. Quite the hot topic for teachers and families. I tend to agree with Rhonda:moderation with a purpose. Like you though, it has taken experience with my son for me to question homework. He is in elemenary school and while I see purpose in his practice of essential, basic math skills, I found myself wondering at times at the amount of work he would have or the number of worksheets traveling home with him. As a high school English teacher, I'm not a worksheet person. Unless students are woking on a project or a piece of writing, they are asked to read 2 1/2 hours a week, something of their choice and to note their time reading on a log. That is my basic homework assignment,but it wasn't always so. Can you say vocabulary workbooks? Your post got me wondering about the research on homework and achievement and thinking about Marzano's work on feedback--if we are giving students mindless homework as practice, but not proviing them with authentic and meaningful feedback, how valueable can it be? A sticky issue to be sure.

Matt Guthrie said...

Thanks for the post. I too have found myself on both sides of the debate. When I taught high school math, I refused to grade homework. I assigned it as practice work. I explained to my students and parents that if they could perform well on the assessments (quizzes & tests) without doing homework, then great. When I shared that philosophy with my colleagues as a second year teacher, it raised quite a stir. Soon, most of the math department had similar policies.

Now that I teach middle school, I struggle with making it meaningful AND I struggle with feeling like I've given the student ample exposure and practice. Homework seems like a necessary evil though I cringe everytime I assign it. I keep looking for a better way that will also get me through the state mandated standard course of study AND satisfy the county mandated pacing guide. Balance all that with the brain research that says our minds need time at rest in order to allow the knowledge to sink in (build neural pathways, i.e. LEARN!) and what do you do?

Next year I'll be in the science classroom and my plan is to eliminate homework. When I move back to the math classroom, I will do my best to stick with that.

Jenny said...

What I REALLY want is for my children - and children at home - to read and write daily. I would LOVE to be able to stress the importance of this to parents and students and have them actually take it to heart and embrace it as a lifestyle. However, realistically, I know that unless the child is naturally interested in literacy, this does not happen. I feel it is only in the rare home that parents expect this of their children. So, I find that I assign homework of reading and writing, and look for ways to make them accountable.

It's funny that I read this post tonight. I was just cleaning the kitchen and thinking, "Thank goodness there's no homework tonight!" Here it is 8:00 and I would just now be able to BEGIN homework with Emma.

I'm still teetering on the edge; it's definitely something I will continue to grapple with for a while to come.

Yvonne said...

I'm in a teacher ed program and just starting to form my views about homework. I too have been on the parent side of this issue and had many an evening wasted with "busy work" that didn't benefit my child's learning. But I also see the point of teacher's who are struggling with many demands on their classroom time and need a way to have students practice skills outside the classroom.

I'm keeping my eyes open for ways to make homework meaningful. I've seen some interesting ideas for "family" homework which forms a link between home and school in Creating Welcoming Schools by JoBeth Allen. One example in the book was a Home Reading Journal that became a conversation between the parent, student, and teacher about a child's learning and thinking.

Also as suzanne31381 pointed out homework can bring up socio-ecomonic issues. Not all students have the support and tools they need at home to complete the work. In our class discussions we've talked about how some cultures view all schoolwork as the realm of the school and think it should not invade the home so they don't have their students do homework.

There is definitely a lot to take into consideration on this subject and I think the result will vary from teacher to teacher and classroom to classroom, just as good instruction should vary to meet the needs of all learners.

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments. I think this is a subject that touches beliefs and practices of all educators passionately.

I hope the door continues to stay open for new ideas about how to best address homework for all ages.

I think the foundational understanding that there is no ONE answer for all schools, teachers and students is a first step.

I think we should do homework at school (practical application of what we are learning) and do some of the more passive classroom tasks at home.

Great post.. thanks for resharing.

latraveler said...

The problem I have with homework is my eighth graders tend to do it at school the morning of and copy, copy, copy from others. I would rather do it IN CLASS so I know they did it then to send it home. But all this come from my new school and my students belief that they are "entitled".